A common complaint of college instructors is how many of their students don’t come to office hours when they are struggling. As instructors, we appreciate how valuable this one-on-one time can be with students, but how can we make our office hours more inclusive, accessible, and welcoming?
First, we need to acknowledge that announcing “come visit me during office hours” on the first day of class just isn’t going to cut it. First-year students, especially, are learning a whole new academic vocabulary and many of them actually do not know what “office hours” are despite this refrain from many of their instructors. Rarely do instructors take the time to actually explain this concept. I’ve heard that some students think office hours are their instructor’s special work time, so why would they want to interrupt that? Office hours are not common in high school, and this term may also confuse international students. We have to remember that while so much of what we do is now so familiar to us, it is likely brand new to our students.
So here’s what we can do to make our office hours more inviting:
- Clearly explain to students that the purpose of office hours is to give them special time and attention regarding any course concerns. You may want to provide more specific examples of what you can offer during your office hours depending on your course content. Perhaps you could even say that you get lonely when no one visits you during this time. Be sure to make clear that office hours are not for punitive purposes.
- Since many students are unfamiliar with the concept of office hours, you could consider renaming this. A colleague of mine re-named her office hours to “Let’s Chat,” and she quickly noticed how many more students utilized this time. Maybe “Open Hours” or “Conference Time” could work. Whatever you call your office hours, make the term and the language you use to describe this as inviting as possible in your syllabus. You may need to provide continuous reminders throughout the semester.
- Provide a variety of times throughout the week when possible. If your office hours are Monday and Wednesday afternoons from 1-3, students who have class on Monday and Wednesday afternoons will likely not be able to attend. You could move two of those hours to a different day at a different time to increase your availability. Be sure to also make clear how students can set up an appointment with you if they are not available during any of your office hours.
- Consider various location options for your office hours. Some students may benefit from working with you in a small, quiet office with no other people around so they are less distracted and there is more confidentiality. Other students may feel more comfortable and less intimidated in livelier atmospheres, like common areas or campus cafes. Be sure to find a location where students are not required to purchase anything during their visit.
- Wherever you decide to hold office hours, let students know exactly how to find this location. Campus maps can be confusing and overwhelming. Could you provide a clearer map or highlight a route from your classroom to your office? Could you end class slightly early to take students to where they can meet you? Consider the seating arrangement during your office hours. If the purpose of your office hours is to help students, perhaps making an arrangement where you can sit side-by-side would be an easy way to look at or chat about their work. Consider how sitting across from each other (especially across the expanse of a large desk) may seem intimidating.
- You may want to provide a variety of communication formats for your office hours. Aside from face-to-face, you could offer digital options, like chat or Skype, since some students may be more comfortable with this form of communicating. This could also accommodate students who can’t be on campus regularly.
I encourage you to play with these options to improve the inclusivity and accessibility of your office hours.
Special thanks to my colleagues at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who have inspired some of these ideas.